BRITISH and American troops may enter Baghdad by Monday, a British military official revealed today.

Group Captain Al Lockwood said he hoped Allied Forces would be in the Iraqi capital within the next three or four days.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said direct talks were taking place with Iraqi forces and it was possible the "full force and fury of a war" could be averted.

Their comments came as tanks from the US 7th Cavalry sped towards the Iraqi capital meeting little resistance, and after scores of Iraqi soldiers surrendered to British troops in the south of Iraq.

British and American troops encountered both hostile fire and white flags in their race across the desert, with some 200 Iraqi soldiers surrendering to the US 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit just over an hour after it crossed the border from northern Kuwait.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Commons that the UK's operations in Iraq "appear to be going well", while Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said they were making "steady progress".

Mr Hoon said the port of Umm Qasr should be under coalition control shortly, but the Iraqis had set light to around 30 oil wells in southern Iraq.

Meanwhile, giant B-52 bombers began taking off today from RAF Fairford, amid speculation that they may be used in a bombardment of Baghdad.

The war had earlier claimed its first British casualties when eight Royal Marines were killed in a helicopter accident. Four American crew were also killed.

A US Marine has also been killed in Iraq, becoming the first reported combat death of the war. The dead soldier was part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and was taking part in the ground assault in southern Iraq. America's MSNBC cable news network said he was killed by Iraqi gunfire during the advance on the Rumeila oil field.

Mr Blair paid tribute to the Marines who died when the helicopter crashed into the desert, saying they were "brave men" who gave their lives to build a "safer and more secure" world.

The servicemen were taking part in an assault, aimed at seizing oilfields in southern Iraq to prevent them being destroyed by the Iraqis, when their Sea Knight crashed into the desert.

There were reports that the American flag had been hoisted in the Iraqi town of Umm Qasi.

Royal Marines securing the oil installations at the Al Faw peninsular encountered the surrendering troops at around 5.30am.

Surrendering Iraqis included around 60 soldiers who emerged from their bunker positions with their hands up, waving white flags, before getting on their knees ready to be taken as prisoners of war by Royal Marines from the 40 Commando.

Intelligence officials reported today that they believe Saddam Hussein may have been injured or even killed in the cruise missile attack on one of his compounds They believed the Iraqi President was still inside a bunker in his Baghdad compound when it was hit in an attack by 36 cruise missiles in the early hours of yesterday. However, the Iraqi Government insisted Saddam was safe.

Meanwhile, in York, protests against the war reached a new pitch with repeated demonstrations in city centre streets, with Ouse Bridge blocked to traffic for 15 minutes at one point last night.

Five people were arrested, with police saying two were too young to be charged and the other three, all students from the University of York, were released after being cautioned.

There were complaints to the Evening Press that police had been heavy-handed but officers said they had had no official complaints, and if any such complaints were made, they would be fully investigated.

The bridge blockade came after about 300 people gathered in St Sampson's Square for a demonstration.

York College students have complained after being thrown off campus while they tried to gather support for their anti-war protest.

Students claimed they were told they were trespassing if they were not in lessons. Deputy principal Graeme Murdoch said the college would not allow protests to take place on campus.